Henry’s big year

Henry’s big year

Article reproduced from Reform Magazine, December 2009

Five hundred years after his accession to the throne, Suzannah Lipscomb looks at a critical year in the life of Henry VIII. The English Reformation, she argues, wasn’t all about Anne Boleyn.

Everyone knows that England broke away from the Roman Catholic Church because the English king, Henry VIII, fancied a woman who wasn’t his wife, but who would not agree to be his mistress. The Anglican Church was the by-product of a messy divorce. It was all (sexual) politics, and no religion.

Or so the story goes.

Yet, while Anne Boleyn was certainly a catalyst, this leg-over version of history obscures Henry VIII’s obvious piety, his theological convictions, and above all, his profound belief that he should be Supreme Head of the Church in England, with the power to determine the beliefs of his people. The story of Henry and the Reformation from 1536 makes this very clear.

1536 was an important turning-point. The Act of Supremacy of 1534 had declared that Henry was, and always had been, the Supreme Head of the Church. But 1536 was the year that Henry started to implement these powers. If Henry’s Reformation had only been about Anne, then he would probably have returned England to the Rome after her death in 1536, as many observers expected him to do. Even evangelicals like Archbishop Cranmer feared it. He wrote to Henry, ‘I trust … you will bear no less zeal to the gospel than you did before’. The easiest course of action was for Henry to drop his pretensions to the royal supremacy and reunite England to Rome. How different history would have been if he had!

But Henry was deeply invested in the royal supremacy, and a series of devastating events in his life in early 1536 had enhanced his need to reassert the supremacy in vehement defiance. These humiliating blows to his ego included a fall from his horse that left him disabled and gaining weight, and the alleged adultery and incest of his wife. Anne and her brother testified in their trial that Henry ‘had neither virtue nor potency’ and was ‘not skilful in copulating with a woman’, accusations that undermined Henry as a man and – because the ability to rule a household was linked to the ability to govern a realm – as a king. Finally, his own cousin, Reginald Pole, had written a savage attack on the supremacy, calling Henry a wild beast, a murderer and an enemy of Christianity. It is not surprising, then, that whereas before 1536, Henry had only divested himself of the Pope, he now seized the initiative and implemented his powers as Supreme Head to shape the new Anglican Church, signalling that he had no intention of resubmitting to the authority of Rome.

1536 saw two major initiatives. In March, the Act for the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries was passed. This was designed to suppress the smaller abbeys and monasteries, because of the ‘manifest sin, vicious, carnal and abominable living’ of the monks and nuns in them. Although there was a financial benefit – the crown received the lands, goods and property of the monasteries – the aim seems originally to have been one of religious reform. Monks were to be re-housed in ‘such honourable great monasteries in this realm wherein good religion is observed’. It seems likely that the wholesale destruction of monasteries was not initially intended.

This all changed in late 1536, when 50,000 men rose in rebellion in the north of England. Calling themselves the Pilgrims of Grace, they marched for ‘the preservation of Christ’s Church’ and against the suppression. For Henry, the rebellion cemented a link between monks and treason, and over the next four years, 800 monasteries in England were dissolved. The abbots were required to surrender their houses ‘voluntarily’; those who did not were executed, like Richard Whiting, abbot of Glastonbury, hanged on Glastonbury Tor, overlooking his deserted former abbey. The dissolution dramatically altered the religious, social, and architectural landscape of England through the destruction of monastic buildings, sale of monastic lands and the pensioning-off of monks and nuns.

Reforming the monasteries fitted Henry’s self-image as God’s anointed deputy on earth, with a mandate to cleanse the realm from religious abuses, like a modern-day Josiah or Phineas. Henry actively identified himself with Abraham and David, as demonstrated by the great set of Abrahamic tapestries commissioned by him for Hampton Court.

But this great reforming king was not necessarily going to be a Protestant. The second innovation of 1536 was the ‘Ten Articles’, the first doctrinal statement of the English Church, largely conceived by Henry himself.

In it, Henry ordained that there were to be only three sacraments – penance, Eucharist and baptism – not the seven of the Roman Catholic Church. He stated that Christ’s body and blood were ‘verily, substantially and really’ present in the Eucharist, and that justification was by ‘contrition and faith joined with charity’. People were to honour the saints but to refrain from ‘vain superstition’, which included, in the royal injunctions of August 1536, the idolatry of image-worship, or faith in relics, miracles or pilgrimages – a radical shift for an illiterate people whose faith had for years been through what they could see and touch. The articles also questioned the nature of purgatory.

This statement of theology was neither wholly Protestant nor Catholic, but it was wholly Henrician. It defined the religion of the kingdom according to the king’s own personal beliefs, shaking the English Church but stopping short of the reform on the continent. It took a path between what Henry later described as the ‘filthy and corrupt abominations of the bishop of Rome’ and ‘novelties and… things not necessary’. In 1540, it was symbolised by the hanging of three papists at the same time as three Protestant heretics were burnt.

Above all, ironically, the purpose of the articles was to ‘establish Christian quietness and unity among us, and to avoid contentious opinions’. It was always a goal close to Henry’s heart: at Christmas 1545, in a speech to parliament, Henry brought himself to tears pleading for religious unity among his people. It is poignant then, that Henry’s legacy was not to be peace and unity, but the destruction and bloodshed of Edward and Mary’s reigns. 1536 had ushered in a Henrician Reformation, but when its author died, his idiosyncratic beliefs went with him, leaving England dazed and confused, but permanently changed.


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